Supporters of sweeping reforms for Berkeley High School say they are building a broad base of support over the summer and will make a strong case to the Berkeley School Board in September, calling on board members to give their unequivocal support to the effort.
“We feel that we have strong community support – stronger than there has ever been for this kind of major reform at Berkeley High school,” said Berkeley High English teacher Rick Ayers, who was tapped to lead the reform planning process earlier this year.
The Berkeley school district was one of 19 California High Schools to receive a $50,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Education. A growing core of teachers and concerned parents have met to explore how to divide over 3000 students at the school into several “small learning communities” could help engage students, particularly African American and Latino students, who historically have a high rate of truancy and failure at Berkeley High.
A large body of research suggests that students develop stronger relationships with teachers and with each other in a “small school” – say 600 students instead of 3,000 – and are thus less likely to become alienated either socially or academically.
If Berkeley school reform supporters come up with a comprehensive plan to divide Berkeley High into a number of small schools by Oct. 1, the district could apply for an implementation grant from the U.S. Department of Education that would amount to $500,000 a year over three years.
But three out of five of Berkeley school board members have been lukewarm about small learning community reform to date, and Berkeley High principal Frank Lynch has committed only to oversee a prolonged discussion about the pros and cons of the plan in the fall.
School board members say there are simply too many unanswered questions about what the small learning communities would look like at Berkeley High. Would they all coexist on one campus? Would they have complete budgeting and governing autonomy? Would students attend the small learning community of their choice for part of the day and the “comprehensive” high school for the rest of the day? Would some of the strong programs that exist at Berkeley High today be threatened by such an arrangement?
These are just a few of the questions raised by board members and some skeptical Berkeley High teachers. Such reluctance on the part of school administrators has lead to some concern about whether the Oct. 1 deadline can be met.
That’s why small learning community supporters like Ayers have been working hard over the summer to assemble what they hope will be irrefutable proof that the Berkeley community is fed up with the status quo and ready to support radical reforms at the school.
They’re holding weekly planning meetings, going door-to-door asking people to sign a petition, and recruiting well-known leaders in the parent, teacher, student and other communities to join in the crusade.
“If the school board sees that the community is really committed, it will push them to do something,” said Marissa Saunders, who chairs the League of Women Voters education committee, Berkeley/Albany/Emeryville chapter.
Saunders, who is also co-chair of the City of Franklin Elementary School PTA, joined the campaign for small learning community reforms in June.
“Out of everything that’s happening in the district, Berkeley High School is the most dysfunctional, and it’s the most dysfunctional for children of color,” said Saunders, an African American.
Saunders said she would not send her daughter – who’s entering the fifth grade at Franklin this fall – to Berkeley High unless the school has been radically reformed.
“I’d be concerned for her safety, for her academic achievement, for her self-esteem,” Saunders said. “I’d be one of those parents up there every single day. And who has the time to be doing that?”
Ayers emphasized Monday that small learning community supporters will not give up if the school board proves unwilling to sign on to the project by September – in time for a concrete plan for small learning communities to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by the Oct. 1 deadline.
If the Berkeley district fails to get the department of education grant, they could still apply for an even bigger grant ($650,000 a year over three years) at a later date from the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES) – an organization whose small school experts are already deeply involved in the small learning community planning effort in Berkeley.
Ayers and others said they will put up a fight to meet the Oct. 1 deadline. The are working to win the support of Parents of Children of African Descent (PCAD), a outspoken group of African American parents at Berkeley High who managed to launch their own kind of small learning community at the school last winter, winning city and school board approval for a program that placed failing students in smaller classes.
Katrina Scott-George, a member of the PCAD Steering Committee, said the group still has reservations about joining the school-wide reform effort. She said PCAD members are narrowly focused on the issue of institutional racism at Berkeley High and their belief that the prevailing mentality of teachers and administrators causes the school to take special care of white students while allowing blacks and Latinos to fall through the cracks.
It is not clear to PCAD members, Scott-George said, that the move to small learning communities would address this issue.
“We’ve been reforming constantly at Berkeley High, but we haven’t made a whole lot of progress, certainly not when we’re talking about African American students,” she said.